Clinching playoff spot a ‘first step’ for Utica Comets
UTICA — Sergei Brylin has a little bit of experience with postseason hockey.
The Utica Comets’ 48-year-old associate coach was a key part of three Stanley Cup championships during his long career with New Jersey Devils. He also was one of the regular-season offensive contributors for the Devils’ American Hockey League team in Albany that won the Calder Cup during the 1994-95 season.
After missing out the last few seasons, Brylin and the Comets — in their first season as the Devils’ AHL affiliate — will get a crack at the postseason. Utica became the first North Division team to clinch a playoff spot Monday with help from Laval’s win over Belleville.
“It is a first step. One of the goals this season was to play meaningful games. We did that,” said Brylin, who has been part of the Devils’ AHL coaching staff since the 2013-14 season. “To tell the truth, we didn’t know what to expect (having the AHL team move from Binghamton to Utica for the 2021-22 season), but it has been good this year.”
Officially clinching one of the five North Division playoff spots was merely a formality at this point despite some recent ups and downs. Utica — helped by that AHL-record 13-0-0-0 start and 17 wins in the first 20 games — has been one of the AHL’s top teams throughout this season.
Brylin noted that the Comets — with head coach Kevin Dineen and assistant Ryan Parent — have had an effective blend of veteran players in their mid-to-late 20s to go along with their prospects, who have taken steps this season.
Utica (0.662 points percentage with seven regular-season games remaining) has had a hold on first place in the North and is the closest to claiming the division title among the seven teams.
The work is not done, though.
Heading into home games Friday against Syracuse and Saturday against Belleville, Utica — without a few regulars in the lineup recently for various reasons — is winless in the last four (0-3-1-0).
Utica is 0.067 ahead of second-place Laval in terms of points percentage. The difference between second place and sixth place is separated by 0.048 points percentage, which makes for an interesting late push. The regular-season ends April 30.
“It is not easy,” said Brylin, who noted the recent adversity can be beneficial. “Every game is tough when you’re playing teams that are fighting for the playoffs. They’re desperate. We have have to make sure we have the same kind of energy, intensity and determination in our game.”
This will be the first time the Devils’ AHL team will make a playoff appearance since 2017. Utica — Vancouver’s affiliate for eight seasons — last made the playoffs in 2018. There were no playoffs during the shortened 2019-20 season due challenges with the coronavirus pandemic. And, from New Jersey’s point of view, the 2021 season — heavily altered by the pandemic — was simply about getting prospects an opportunity to play. That team won a total of seven games. There was no postseason opportunity last spring.
Brylin said the coaching staff got a congratulatory text Monday night from Devils’ General Manager Tom Fitzgerald for making the playoffs. It is unclear if the Comets have had a chance to celebrate the achievement as Tuesday was an off-ice day for much of the group.
The final regular-season games will be beneficial, Brylin said.
“It is all about details. We have to get back to playing the right way. We have to find a way to have energy,” Brylin said. “Once we get through this month, we’ll see who we play and we’ll be ready.”
Comets sign forward
The Comets added a forward from the University of Michigan team that advanced to the Frozen Four.
The team announced Tuesday that forward Garrett Van Wyhe has been signed to an AHL contract for the rest of this season as well as the 2022-23 season.
The 24-year-old Seattle native recently finished his fourth season with Michigan, where he totaled 37 points (16 goals and 21 assists) in 135 NCAA games.
Van Wyhe, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, is the latest Michigan player to go pro following prospects Matty Beniers, Owen Power, Kent Johnson and Nick Blankenburg.
This season, Van Wyhe was a teammate of Devils’ first-round draft pick Luke Hughes, who is set to return to Michigan for his sophomore season.
Van Wyhe is coming off his best statistical season with 12 points (six goals and six assists) in 42 games. The team had its season end against eventual national champion Denver in overtime in the NCAA tournament. Van Whye was named to the NCAA All-Region Team this season.
He’s the most recent college signee to join the Comets after Brian Halonen, who is on an amateur tryout contract with Utica. His two-year deal with the Devils begins next season.
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